Edible insects are often talked about as a possible "food of the future" - but what does insect eating actually look like in the here and now? Guest producer Soleil Ho is the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and writer of Meal: Adventures in Entomophagy. She went to Kushihara, a mountain village in Japan where wasps are a seasonal delicacy, to learn more about the region's traditional eating of insects. 

The people of Kushihara have an age-old obsession with wasps. I’m talking about Vespula flaviceps—a species of flying insect known in Central Japan for its exquisite deliciousness. In this rural mountain village, the wasp is celebrated as a seasonal wild food, like matsutake mushrooms, that peaks in late autumn as their nests swell with wiggly, buttery larvae.

In the West, we tend to think of entomophagy, or the eating of insects, as the domain of “friendly” bugs like crickets and mealworms: bugs that are amenable to being processed into flours, chips, and protein bars. In 2013, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization released a blockbuster report that emphasized entomophagy’s role in creating a sustainable source for food for our planet’s growing population. Since then, people in the West have been racing to find the silver bullet that would get mainstream eaters on board. The key idea is, we can use edible insects to bring our global food system into the future because they’re nutritious, sustainable, and efficient. But wasps, which kind of terrify us out West, aren’t often included in the conversation. They’re, unsurprisingly, a pain to deal with. So why go through all that trouble?

When I went to Kushihara this past November, I carried questions like that with me. Questions like, are wasps all that tasty? Why are they so meaningful for the people in Kushihara? And what does it mean to have such a symbiotic relationship with creatures that we so often fear in the West? During the town’s wasp festival, hebo matsuri, which is held on November 3rd, I learned just how intimate and meaningful that relationship could be. The people of this region have been eating and celebrating their edible insects for centuries. The practice is as casual as keeping an apple tree in the yard.

 Tetsuo and Sayoko Nakagaki raise wasps in wooden boxes at their home in Kushihara.  Photo: Soleil Ho

While I was in Kushihara, I stayed with Tetsuo and Sayoko Nakagaki, a couple who raise wasps—which they call hebo—in three wooden boxes in their backyard. In the springtime, they look for wild nests in the forests nearby and dig them out. She told me that they keep the wild nests, which often start off the size of tennis balls, in these hive boxes. This is where they grow. Over the summer and fall, the hebo are fed a steady diet of sugar water, honey, and raw chicken meat. Humans also offer protection from bad weather and predators, so it’s a pretty good deal for the wasps. The nests are ready to harvest when they get big and full of larvae.

As Sayoko led me through their yard and into their rows of beans, tomatoes, and peppers, I realized that wasp keeping for them was just like tending an apple tree at home. You take care of it and feed it throughout the year so that, when the time comes, you can enjoy its fruit. And fill your freezer.

When you think about Japanese food, you think ocean fish, right? You think of sushi, sashimi, that sort of stuff. But the town of Kushihara is in Gifu prefecture, located pretty much dead center in Japan. They have no access to the ocean. Since they live in one of the few landlocked regions of the country, the residents have historically relied on foraging, hunting, and small-scale vegetable and rice farming for their food. It’s clear that wasp rearing has historically been an important part of a seasonal rhythm here, though nowadays most of the people involved are men in their 60s, like Tetsuo.

The Nakagakis’ story is pretty typical for the area: their adult children sought out opportunities in the big cities while their parents keep up the old way of life at home. Tetsuo is also a prolific hunter of another insect endemic to the area: Japanese giant hornets, which they call osuzumebachi. While the mature hornets aren’t really good for eating, their larvae are. They taste meaty and rich, with an almost shrimp-like texture.

Giant hornets in shochu, Japanese liquor. Used for medicinal purposes as the alcohol infused with the hornets' essence. The liquid is also use to drown the hornets when people hunt them.   Photo: Soleil Ho

In preparation for the annual wasp festival, or hebo matsuri, organizers Shoko and Daisuke Miyake make the event’s specialty: gohei mochi, or grilled sticky rice. I went over to their house to watch them and their daughters make the tare, or sauce, for the mochi. I asked Shoko many gohei mochi they you planning to make for the festival? She told me 1,300. I was amazed.

The young Miyake family’s tare recipe is rock solid. Daisuke hand-grinds peanuts into a paste by using a wooden pestle in a giant bowl with grooves on the inside, called a suribachi. He keeps the bowl steady on the floor with his knees while the kids grind the larvae in a smaller version of that. To make the sauce, they combine equal parts soy sauce, white sugar, and the peanut butter with year-old miso, ginger, and the mashed hebo larvae. Their kids grew up making this stuff; you can tell by the way they beg their mom for a taste. The mashed larvae add a note of slick fattiness to the sauce, though their mild flavor is subsumed by the saltiness that coats your mouth. But this is nothing compared to how it tastes when grilled, which I found out later.

The next day, I went to the community center to help Shoko and her crew of hired hands make the 1,300 mochi they’d need for the festival. Here’s how that process goes. The 200 pounds of rice, which is grown in Kushihara, gets washed, then steamed. Two folks crouch down to pound the hot rice with wooden pestles in a tub. This isn’t like the gooey mochi you’d find wrapped around sweet bean paste at a grocery store: the end product comes out with the same toothy texture as a spoonful of steel cut oats. Then they portion out the rice in balls, about 5 ounces each. Finally, they’re molded around flat cedar sticks and left to dry in wooden boxes until they get a little hard on the outside. Now repeat that 1,299 times.

The stages of gohei mochi:  hot rice is pounded, formed around cedar sticks, air-dried with assistance from fans, and then grilled as part of the hebo matsuri celebration.   Photo: Soleil Ho

Shoko, who was born in Akechi, a nearby town, does this work because she believes in the importance of the festival to her community. I asked her about the history of the festival and wasp rearing while she wiped down cedar sticks for the next batch of mochi. She also told me that before, the hebo contest used to be a competition of who could find the biggest nest out in the wild. But nowadays actually finding sizable nests has gotten more and more difficult due to pesticides, a growing popularity, and changes in the environment.

On the day of the festival, the 1,300 gohei mochi are grilled, basted with the sauce Shoko’s family made, then grilled again. The taste of wasp larvae is subtle, but a slight char on the grill makes their sweet nuttiness go into overdrive. No wonder the lines for their stall remained about 40 people deep all day. While some folks, like me, were taking photos and asking tons of questions, most attendees were old hands at this. It was more like a community party than a stunt food attraction, and influencers were few and far between. It was, all told, pretty normie. People like Tetsuo and Shoko usually take the festival as an opportunity to hang out with old friends and commemorate yet another autumn.

Japanese wasp cuisine: wasp tempura (left) and wasp onigiri/rice balls (right) Photo: Soleil Ho

That said, the main event is certainly the hebo contest. In a huge mesh tent in the center of the area, festival staff carefully extract each of the participant’s nests from their wooden boxes and pile each one into a clear garbage bag. The nests are then set on a scale in front of a huge crowd; the weights are announced and the bags are labeled with tape. The mood is casual, yet heavy with anticipation. According to Tetsuo, the majority of nests weigh in at two kilograms, or five-ish pounds. As it turned out, the winner’s nest was a whopping six and a half kilograms, or 14 pounds. When I asked Tetsuo what the winner actually got, he shrugged and said—essentially—street cred. His ended up being about two kilograms, though he said he’s not like those retired guys who have the time to feed his nests chicken all day. He actually has a job to go to. Fair enough.

Hebo contest judges evaluate nests by weight in search for the largest domestically raised wasp nests.  Photo: Soleil Ho

While standing in line for gohei mochi, we happened to run into Joost van Itterbeeck, a Belgian researcher. Remember that FAO study I mentioned earlier? The one that sparked the edible insect gold rush? He’s one of its coauthors. He asks me if I generally feel a positive attitude with insects coming up and trying to be popularize in Western cultures? I tell him that currently, the fashion with which people are trying to popularize them is very much based in flawed thinking and flawed advertising. He agrees. I tell him that I think the majority of people we’ve talked to in the United States would be interested in insects as a powder, which I find really sad because so much of the pleasure of eating insects is from the texture and the actual flavor. But the impulse to hide it as if it’s something that’s inherently disgusting rather than something to savor and enjoy on its own to bring out all of the best aspects of in your cooking, that makes it seem less like a food and more like a vitamin that you take. Once again, Joost agreed, saying, "That’s the road they are focusing on now – it’s true. Like a supplement just for the nutritional benefits and that’s it."

It meant a lot to me to know that Joost agreed with me. My misgivings about the edible insect trade in the West were why I’d come all the way to Kushihara, after all. In the end, I walked away from the conversation with the impression that he carried some regret over the small part he’d played in turning edible insects into a fad.

Tweezers and care are used to pull wasp larvae from the hexagonal sections of nest.   Photo: Soleil Ho

After the festival, we left with Tetsuo to sell a portion of his nest to a local restaurant. The going price for a wasp nest is about 36 dollars per pound, though you still have to do all of the larvae extraction yourself. Though he could have sold the entire nest, Tetsuo chose to take half of it home with him. When we got back to the house, Sayoko lined the dinner table with newspaper, Tetsuo cracked open some barley beers, and we all got to work on the nests.

The pieces of nest are like a broken pomegranate. Instead of seeds, though, they’re filled with glistening larvae arranged in orderly hexagons. Older generations are more developed, with identifiable faces and body parts, while the younger ones are wiggly, pudgy grubs. We spent the night of the festival plucking the wasps out with tweezers, drinking, and chatting while variety shows played on in the background. Once in a while, a fully formed adult would emerge from a cell, and Tetsuo would quickly decapitate it with his tweezers before it got too far. It was easy to fall into a trance and just pluck, pluck, pluck away.

After we got a good pile going, Sayoko simmered the larvae in a pot with sugar, sake, chopped ginger, and soy sauce. That method of cooking is called tsukudani—people make all kinds of things that way, not just insects. The first batch got away from her and burned a bit, so… she tried again. This time, we stared down at the pot as it cooked. She had eyeballed the ingredients and cooked them for about 11 minutes—just enough time for them to soak up the flavors and firm up. The larvae didn’t taste so buttery anymore. The texture was way meatier, almost like bits of ground chicken. For the people of Kushihara, a hefty dollop of these on a bowl of steamed rice is the ultimate fall dish.

Sayoko Nakagaki simmers wasp larvae in a pot with sugar, sake, chopped ginger, and soy sauce. That method of cooking is called tsukudani—people make all kinds of things that way, not just insects.  Photo: Soleil Ho

This approach to edible insects is far from futuristic, and it’s definitely not efficient enough to feed the world’s growing population. In fact, so much of wasp culture in Kushihara is centered on being in the present moment: in a certain place at a certain time. Wasps are, more than anything, a fleeting mark of the fall season. You spend months cultivating the nests just for that moment when you pop a raw larvae into your mouth and it bursts into a flash of honey butter.

Soleil Ho Illustration: Wendy Xu

The Splendid Table guest producer Soleil Ho is food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and co-host of the Racist Sandwich podcast. Reporting for this piece was supported by the UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship. Recording assistance provided by Chris Farstad. Learn more about Soleil's writing project MEAL: Adventures in Entomophagy, a graphic novel about eating bugs drawn by Blue Delliquanti.